Sunday, May 15, 2011

Archaeology: More than Strata and Sherds

As a student of archaeology, I have always been sensitive to the issue of the types of questions archaeology alone can, or cannot, answer. By “archaeology alone,” I am referring to studies of prehistoric peoples that must try to make sense of the physical evidence without the benefit of a recorded history. I have worked mostly in the American Southwest, where the Hohokam, Mogollon, ancestral puebloans, and others abandoned their communities long before the arrival of the Spanish and left behind no written records.

Archaeological studies can determine quite a bit about people from the durable items that survive the passage of time: What they ate, where they lived, when they lived, what they manufactured, where they found their raw materials, who they traded with, etc. The material record can also reveal clues about their social behaviors. Differentiation in household goods can indicate social or economic stratification, grave goods hint at reverence paid to the dead, and monumental architecture reveals the presence of community-level organization.

This is still pretty thin, from an anthropological point of view. My very first anthropology course defined culture as a set of shared ideas and behaviors. Archaeologists talk about “cultural” material and studying lost “cultures,” yet the artifacts and structures we excavate seldom seem to tell us much about the shared ideas and behaviors of the people who left them behind. Even behaviors such as the daily routines of gathering and preparing food must be guessed at, since in most cases the people who abandoned these habitation sites, well, they abandoned them. Only a handful of archaeologists are lucky enough to find a snapshot in time such as that provided by the sudden and rapid burial of Pompeii. Most sites in the Americas were cleared out, and sometimes decommissioned and burned before the former residents moved on, leaving little if any clues to the activities that previously occurred there.

Bigger questions remain mostly unanswered by the artifacts: What were their motives? What institutions did they create? What did they believe? Without a record, whether written by the people themselves or by their contemporaries (enemies or conquerors, for example), we will likely never know. I was surprised by a particular example of the importance of corroborating documentation while touring the Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth, England. One exhibit case contained mysterious items and a sign that asked visitors if they know what the objects were, or how they were used. Even with written records from that period (she sank in 1545), archaeologists and historians have been unable to identify the artifacts. Similarly mysterious items with no identifiable function are often labeled as “ritualistic” here in the American Southwest... but, I digress.

If the only things archaeological data could tell us about past societies were dates of occupation, population estimates, diet, goods produced, subsistence methods and the like (the kind of information you learn in a Geography 101 course), I probably would have lost interest by now. Fortunately for me, I have met and worked with archaeologists who engage in interdisciplinary approaches.

I’m not talking about the kind of interdisciplinary work that happens when geologists, biological anthropologists, climatologists, and other specialists are brought in to help interpret an archaeological site. I don’t mean working with cultural anthropologists to interpret material culture through ethnographic analogs, either (although this is important and valuable). I’m referring to archaeologists working with academics from other fields entirely, in an attempt to provide a deeper time perspective to better understand present day societies and institutions.

Such interdisciplinary opportunities include:

1. Economics. Archaeological data can reveal much about production and exchange that is useful to economists, who can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking human history began with the creation of the central bank.

2. Architecture. Techniques have been developed by architects that can be applied to archaeological studies of the built environment, such as Hillier and Hanson’s space syntax analysis, and Rapoport’s concepts of low, middle, and high level meaning.

3. Urban Studies and Planning. Analysis of ancient cities can help to identify universals in the ways humans aggregate into large settlements.

4. Sustainability. This is a hip new topic, and archeological studies have a lot to offer with regard to human interactions with the environment over time.

Like nearly everyone, I was drawn to archaeology by the ruins and the promise of unearthing mysterious items. As I became more involved, I embraced the measurement aspects: the what, where, and when of the artifacts. But archaeology has to be much more than the salvage of ancient treasure if it is to be relevant, both to the social sciences and to me. The potential to use archaeology to help see the big picture of humanity is what is keeping me around.

Paul Wren

Further Reading:

The Mary Rose Museum

Hillier, B., & Hanson, J.
1984 The social logic of space. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rapoport, A.
1988 Levels of meaning in the built environment. In F. Poyatos (Ed.), Cross-cultural perspectives in non verbal communication (pp. 317–336). Toronto: C. J. Hogrefe.

Urban Organization through the Ages: Neighborhoods, Open Spaces and Urban Life

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a very well written article. You have given me hope and information that I didn't have twenty minutes ago. I also believe that archaeology needn't work alone. Keep up the good work and write more if you can.